CHICAGO — “Home is a place where you try to leave,” muses Işin over breakfast in her Manhattan apartment. She is reflecting on the impossibility of living and working in Turkey, her native land, as a curator of contemporary art who has taken a stand against the regime of President Recep Erdoğan. She is thinking, too, about being a woman who loves to bicycle ride, something she recalls being shamed for at age 17, when a man threw chewed-up sunflower seed shells at her face for the crime of feeling the freedom of moving through the world on two wheels and your own energy. In New York, she can bike anywhere.
Işin Önol is one of the subjects in Chronicle of a Fall, an immersive, feature-length video installation by Nadav Assor and Tirtza Even, currently on view at Gallery 400. She, Morehshin Allahyari, Raja Halwani, Sejake Mats’ela, and Shirly Bahar — as well as the filmmakers themselves — are cultural workers who immigrated to the United States for the same reason anyone moves anywhere: in search of a better life. (Juan Flores, the sixth participant, was born here to immigrant parents.) For all of them, the need to migrate was driven by the political reality of the countries where they were born: Turkey, Iran, Lebanon, South Africa, Israel/Palestine, Mexico. But as becomes apparent through their conversations with one another, their partners, and the filmmakers, and in independent monologues, living in the US — especially under the Trump Administration, when the project was conceived and shot — is itself an unstable endeavor.
The central question of Chronicle of a Fall — “What is home to you?” — has as many answers as it has respondents, sometimes more. A single person might provide multiple, even contradictory replies, and oftentimes partners and friends do not agree. Morehshin and her boyfriend, cooking in their narrow galley kitchen in Brooklyn, are at odds: for her, home is the places where her friends and family live in Iran; for him it is wherever you find love. “I don’t think we’re talking about the same thing,” he wryly observes. Raja, walking along the lakefront in Chicago, describes having two homes, one in this city, where he has lived and worked for over half his life, and another in Beirut, where he grew up. And yet, in neither place does he ever feel entirely at home. Later, sitting in his living room, he poses the question to his husband, who answers that home is right here, where he can be himself, with his partner. Shirly, sitting by the pond in Prospect Park, chats with Işin about the professional circumstances under which each had first arrived in New York, and the ironies of their respective citizenship situations. Strolling off afterwards across a sunset meadow, she complains, almost as if to herself, about the park’s failure to meet the expectations of someone who grew up near the Mediterranean and the desert. “It just won’t work. It’s like the failure of the attempt to tell yourself this is good enough for a home.”
If Chronicle of a Fall were just this, a documentary following six people and their partners around their apartments and adopted cities, it would be enough. The subjects are thoughtful and critical, and they ruminate sincerely on the struggle of not having enough money, and thus never enough time, when trying to do more than merely survive; being strangers together in a foreign land; feeling politically unwanted in one’s own homeland; the passive aggressiveness of American culture, particularly in regard to racism; having to choose between self-exile and self-censorship; the trauma of being forced into a new language; being not entirely one thing or another, and thus unclaimed by any place.
But Chronicle of a Fall is not a documentary in any conventional sense — or at least it offers a radical renewal of the form. Loosely based on Chronicle of a Summer, the groundbreaking documentary directed by ethnologist Jean Rouch and sociologist Edgar Morin in 1960, it updates the cinema-vérité style they pioneered for a world of new and ubiquitous media technology and endless global population displacement. Footage was shot by traditional means but also on GoPro cameras strapped to the chests of both subjects and filmmakers, and, in an especially memorable scene, Işin’s bike. Everyone participates in the recording of their shared reality, one that includes Assor and Even, who make no pretense of invisibility. They appear here and there, sometimes adding their own thoughts to the conversation, sometimes just hovering in the background. At one point, Shirly, annoyed with Assor, berates him: “You always push back! Can you just listen? You are the filmmaker, so that’s exactly what you can do.” These multiple points of view, the seeing and being seen, the making and being made, translate naturally but unnervingly into many split screens: Raja and his husband film themselves from opposite ends of their sofa; Sejake sits at his desk, and there too is his desktop up close. When Juan pauses in a lush park near his parents’ home in San Antonio, three perspectives capture the moment: his body cam, the filmmaker’s body cam, and the other filmmaker’s hand-held camera. There is no singular, stable view of anything.
This volatility extends to the entire gallery space. Viewers can sit on benches to watch the six subjects on a pair of suspended screens, but at the same time, they are submerged in an enormous environmental projection composed of pointillist dots of light that recreate ghostly three-dimensional versions of the film’s indoor and outdoor spaces. The technical explanation involves an architectural laser-scanner and something called point-clouds, and the pop culture reference is arguably Immersive Van Gogh, but the effect is profoundly alien. Depopulated parklands, streetscapes, and apartment interiors continually resolve and dissipate, generating fleeting instances of beauty or nightmare. Orientation and solidity come tantalizingly close, only to slip inexorably away. All is pixelated, atomized, fluid, and shifting — because it is.
Chronicle of a Fall continues at Gallery 400 (400 East Peoria Street, Chicago, Illinois) through August 6. It was developed by the artists in part through a fellowship with MIT Open Documentary Lab, 2019-2021, with additional support from the School of the Art Institute of Chicago, Connecticut College, and the City of Chicago.